Friday, 1 February, 2019
Heather Russell, Vegan Society Dietitian, explains why cruelty-free nutrition shouldn’t go in the same box as fad diets.
In January, as ever, we saw a lot in the news about fad diets. Sometimes, vegan diets are mentioned in this context, which is unfair because they’re not inherently unbalanced and impractical. Furthermore, the decision to lead a vegan lifestyle is motivated by a commitment to avoid animal use as much as possible.
As I dietitian, I want to communicate helpful messages effectively, whereas the aim of media output is often entertainment. Reading articles containing unhelpful messages about vegan nutrition is frustrating for me because I want people to be presented with a fair picture of the nutritional potential of totally plant-based diets. I don’t want people with a genuine interest in avoiding animal use to think that nutrition is a minefield, which is all too common when exposed to this topic in the media. But of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. Whether you’re a seasoned vegan or simply curious about totally plant-based nutrition,is here for you! Maybe it’s time to set the record straight by doing a bit of mythbusting:
A common concern is that ditching dairy is bad for your bones. Lots of factors affect bone health, but calcium is probably the one that receives the most attention. Switching from cows’ milk and yoghurt to fortified plant-based alternatives means that you maintain your calcium intake.
Routine iron supplementation is not necessary for vegans. Yes, there are differences in the ways that plant and animal iron are absorbed, but you can maintain good iron status without consuming animal products. By eating plenty of iron-rich plant foods across the day and including a good source of vitamin C in meals, you can help to ensure that your body absorbs enough iron.
If you don’t like oily fish or you choose not to eat it, you don’t have to miss out on omega-3 fats. Balance your daily diet by including a really rich source of short-chain omega-3 fat (ALA). This could be as simple as snacking on some walnut halves or adding ground linseed (flaxseed) to your porridge. It’s possible to use a microalgae supplement to add the long-chain omega-3 fats (EPA and DHA) found in oily fish to a vegan diet, although we need research into whether or not this results in health benefits.
A common concern about vegan nutrition is that it’s necessary to consider supplementation. As a general rule of thumb, I recommend being selective about using supplements, but there are good reasons why they are recommended in certain situations. In the UK, vitamin D supplementation is recommended for everyone during autumn and winter as a minimum. For people who eat a totally plant-based diet, a potentially straightforward supplementation solution is to take a vitamin and mineral supplement designed for vegans like VEG 1, providing vitamins B12 and D, iodine and selenium. This may be no bother at all for someone who is thrilled about keeping animal products off their plate all day every day.
Veganism, children and nutrition is an emotive combination, and every so often, the media puts out a tragic story about a vegan child who has failed to thrive. Whether they’re vegan or not, every parent has a responsibility to give their child the nutrition they need for a great start in life. We work with the British Dietetic Association to share the message that well-planned vegan diets can support healthy living in people of all ages. Our nutrition zone hosts information that has been reviewed by a paediatric dietitian, and First Steps Nutrition Trust has produced an excellent guide. Any parent with concerns about nutritional planning can talk to their doctor about seeing a paediatric dietitian.
Image by Maria Lindsey from Pexels
Reaping the rewards
You hear a lot about deficiency risks and pitfalls in some articles about vegan nutrition, which can make you feel very negative about the whole thing. It’s essential to provide information about considerations around vegan nutrition, but I aim to frame it in a positive way and help people to see what you can gain from choosing to avoid animal use as much as possible. After all, unless everyone understands why someone might go vegan and how to do it, they can’t make an informed decision.
You can maximise the quality of your daily fuel by including plenty of health-promoting plant foods like wholegrains, fruit, nuts, beans and other vegetables. Furthermore, it may be easier for you to hit your fibre and 5-a-day targets and limit saturated fat as a result of going vegan.
Vegans save lives and reduce their environmental footprint by eating a totally plant-based diet, but of course, veganism is about far more than the food on our plates. Being vegan affects decisions around clothing, toiletries, entertainment and any other area where it’s possible to choose an animal-free alternative. Surely, widening your circle of compassion can never be considered a fad.